U.S. Navy veteran Toua Vang throws wood onto a burn pile at a work site in the Routt National Forest near Stagecoach. Vang is part of a Veterans Fire Corps crew operated by the Student Conservation Association. The program aims to give veterans skills that they can use to land jobs.

Photo by Matt Stensland

U.S. Navy veteran Toua Vang throws wood onto a burn pile at a work site in the Routt National Forest near Stagecoach. Vang is part of a Veterans Fire Corps crew operated by the Student Conservation Association. The program aims to give veterans skills that they can use to land jobs.

Routt National Forest work helps veterans transition to civilian life

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U.S. Army veteran Elder Pyatt uses a chain saw Tuesday while working with his Veterans Fire Corps crew near Stagecoach.

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The Veterans Fire Corps crew members working in the Routt National Forest are, clockwise from top left, crew leader Josh Avery, Mike Bowers, Craig Parker, Toua Vang and Elder Pyatt.

— After spending a year deployed with the Army in Iraq, Elder Pyatt had to adjust to civilian life when he finished his service in 2008.

Life in the military moves much faster, said Pyatt, who served to earn money for college.

“There is an adjustment period,” he said.

In the Army, Pyatt used mechanic’s tools to work on large military vehicles. This summer, he is removing limbs from beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees near Stagecoach with a chain saw, which he never really had used before.

“Not in this capacity,” Pyatt said. “Like yard work kind of stuff.”

Pyatt, whose goal is to earn a master's degree, is joined by three other veterans and a crew leader. The group is working through next week on U.S. Forest Service land to help create a 350-foot buffer between private land and the forest. By removing the dead timber, the Forest Service is trying to help protect nearby homes and property should a wildfire start. Fire mitigation work is nothing new in the Routt National Forest, but this is the first time the crew of veterans has been called in to help.

“We’re glad to have everyone, and we’re definitely glad to have this crew,” Yampa district ranger Jack Lewis said on his way to meet the crew, which is staying at the Oak Creek Fire Protection District’s Stagecoach fire station.

The veterans are working this summer for the Veterans Fire Corps under the Student Conservation Association. Although they are being paid only $280 per week, the veterans are learning skills, earning certifications and gaining experience that will prepare them for a post-military career in forestry or wildland firefighting.

“After I’m done with this, I’ll basically be able to be a fully qualified applicant for the job I want next season,” said aspiring wildfire firefighter Craig Parker, an Army veteran who spent one year in Iraq as an infantryman.

The experience should help make the veterans attractive to future employers, particularly federal agencies.

“It’s a fairly competitive market for people looking for jobs,” said Sam Duerksen, with the Yampa Ranger District.

The training offers another option for those who might be lost or unsure after returning to civilian life.

“I do know a lot of people who don’t know what they want to do, and they don’t want to go to school,” said Toua Vang, who joined the Navy after his junior year because he was burned out with school and going through a “quarter-life crisis.”

He worked as an aviation electrician on F18 jets and today is studying pre-law at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Vang said the firefighting training is providing him with choices.

That also is the case for Army veteran Mike Bowers, who was deployed to Iraq for a year. He helped conduct patrols, cleared roads for improvised explosive devices and assisted with training the Iraqi police. In the fall, he will return to Miami University, where is he studying computer engineering.

“I get to hang out outside,” Bower said. “It’s a pretty interesting experience.”

It is not easy work. It is hot, manual labor, and there are endless amounts of dead limbs and slash that needed to be piled and eventually burned. After finishing three weeks of work in Routt County, the crew will head to another job in Granby. The group also is hoping to gain experience working on a wildfire.

More work ahead

Aside from the Fire Corps, the Forest Service will be working with prison crews, Hotshot firefighters, local fire crews and loggers to complete the work at the Morrison Creek Fuels Reduction Projects.

Forest technician Derek Egan said dead trees in an area comprising about 108 acres will be felled by hand to help create the buffer. Machinery will be brought in to remove trees in another 1,000 acres.

Depending on available money and resources, the project could take five years to complete. That also is dependent on cooperation from private landowners. Currently, the crews are accessing the forest through the Lost Elk Ranch.

“Lost Elk Ranch has been extremely helpful in allowing us access through their land,” Egan said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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